It's Football Time! Are you ready? Do you have the fever yet?
The traditions and passions run deep in the South when it comes to football and the state of Tennessee has produced some of the most successful and memorable champions, athletes and coaches throughout the years. Good luck to the Titans, Blue Raiders, Tigers, Volunteers and Commodores on the upcoming season and hoping each team exceeds their goals for this year's football campaign.
Tennessee State University Looking back in our rich history at one of our most treasured and legendary coaches. Tennessee State University president, Dr. Walter S. Davis is credited with bringing the greatest football coach in Tennessee State Athletic History. Davis lured the young Jackson State College coaching trio comprised of Coach Big John Merritt, Joe Gilliam; and a year later, lured Alvin “Cat” Coleman to Nashville, Tennessee, to direct the Big Blue Tigers Football Program (at all cost).
The “Big John Era” provided the Tennessee State Tigers with a solid coaching trio, that remained intact for 20-years, from 1963-1983. Coach Alvin “Cat” Coleman engineered a new offense, with pass-happy talented quarterbacks (like 3-time All- American QB Eldridge Dickey and QB Joe “747” Adams a 4-time All-American). He recruited agile strong ball carriers, and speedy ends. This combination produced an explosive Tennessee State football offensive power never before seen, using a pro-type T, with multiple sets, and wide open style play.
Coach Joe Gilliam ruled the Tiger defense with a repetitiously executed discipline that stopped opponent’s offenses like a steel curtain. His defense dared opponents’ offenses to rush or pass. One season, his defense, led by All-American defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones, held their 10 opponents to a NCAA record, minus yardage for the season.
The whole show was directed under the tutelage and overseeing eye of the Big Fellow, Coach “Big John” Merritt. The coaching trio of Merritt-Gilliam-Coleman directed Tennessee State to four (4) unbeaten seasons: 9 wins – 0 losses -1 tie in 1965;
10 wins – 0 losses in 1966; 11 wins – 0 losses in 1970; and 10 wins – 0 losses in 1973.
Under Big John’s leadership, they rolled up seven (7) Black National Football Titles in 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1979, and 1982.
They captured the Mid-Western Conference Football Championships in 1964, 1965 & 1966. TSU appeared in the NCAA 1-AA Playoffs in 1981 with a 26-25 loss to South Carolina State. In the 1982 1-AA Playoffs, they beat Eastern Illinois 20-19, but lost to Western Kentucky 13-7.
TSU appeared in NCAA Mid-East Regional Championships in 1965 (Co-Champs), 1966, 1970, and 1971.
Coach Merritt’s teams were Grantland Rice Bowl Champions in 1965, tying Ball State 14-14. In 1966, they beat Muskingum 34-7, in 1970, they beat Southwestern 26-25, and in 1971, TSU beat McNeese State 26-23.
TSU appeared in The Pioneer Bowl in 1972, beating Drake University 29-7.
The coaching trio of Merritt-Gilliam-Coleman led this fantastic 20-year “Triumvirate Era” amassing 232 wins, 65 losses, and 11 ties for a winning standard of 77.1%. They all were inducted into the Tennessee State University 1983 Inaugural Sports Hall of Fame.
Coach Merritt became the 1st Black Coach to be named to the National Football Sports Hall of Fame, Helms Sports Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, Atlanta’s 100% Wrong Club Coach of the Year, Pittsburgh Courier Coach of the
Year, and Sheridan Coach of the Year.
Tennessee State’s Football Program, developed 75 All-Americans during the Merritt Era, led by: Eldridge Dickey; Claude Humphrey; Tommy Davis; Jim Marsalis; Nolan Smith; Elbert Drungo; Joe ‘Turkey” Jones; Vernon Holland; Joe Gilliam, Jr.; Wayman Bryant; Ed “Too Tall” Jones; John Holland; Oliver Davis; Cleveland Elam; Melvin Mitchell; Joe “747” Adams; Homer Elias; Dwight Wheeler; McDonald Oden; Mike Jones; Richard Dent; Brian Ransom; Malcolm Taylor; Steve Moore; and many others, who elevated themselves into the National Football League.
Coach “Big John” Ayers Merritt passed away on December 15, 1983, one of the saddest days in Tigerland. www.bstmllc.com
Article and permission provided by:
Black Sports The Magazine; BSTM
“Big John” Merritt, Tennessee State University